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Attracting the Next Generation Focus of Midwest Rural Assembly

August 9, 2010

MINNEAPOLIS - Rural leaders from Minnesota and throughout the Midwest meet this month to discuss the future of rural economies. Central to the discussions at the upcoming Midwest Rural Assembly will be the issue of attracting and retaining young people in small towns.

For generations, rural populations have dwindled as younger residents moved away for school and to seek job opportunities in more urban areas, according to Jonathan Beutler, a program associate at Renewing the Countryside. He says this has impacted the vitality of rural economies and resulted in an aging workforce.

"The average farmers in this country are now approximately 60 years old, so it's really critical that we find effective ways to transition farmlands to the new generation."

In order to make such transitions work, says Beutler, rural communities must find ways to help young people earn what he calls "a real living" in agriculture. And, while the growing interest in sustainable farming is a key area of opportunity, Beutler notes it is equally important to foster a greater sense of community. The feeling of isolation is one of the most common challenges he hears from those who have moved to small towns.

"I think if we want to attract young people back to rural communities, we need to really reinvent them as a place that is friendly to young people and will make them feel at home."

He notes some of the more successful rural communities have supported youthful entrepreneurs who opened coffee shops, and developed local arts and cultural opportunities that attract other young people.

Passion for sustainability and entrepreneurship creates another growth opportunity for rural economies, in the form of green jobs and green industry. One critical step toward this trend is an educated workforce, according to Teresa Kittridge, executive director of the Minnesota Renewable Marketplace.

"What we've really tried hard to do in Minnesota is have our education institutions really listen to industry, about what their needs are for skills to support these new businesses and new ventures in renewable energy."

Kittridge says keeping wealth local is also another huge factor in ensuring future economic stability in rural America.

"A good example is owning the wind farms that are built in rural America. To be able to own the assets and to be able to then, of course, reinvest in the communities is a big piece of keeping wealth local."

Both Beutler and Kittridge are among the featured speakers at this year's Midwest Rural Assembly in South Sioux City, Nebraska. Registration is accepted up to the start of the event on Monday, August 16. For more information, visit www.midwestruralassembly.org.

Sharon Rolenc, Public News Service - MN